As one era passes, another begins. One died, and then two others. There is no connection, save a pernicious idea.
Defeat it, God, and save the people – target and targetter alike.
Far away in America, the Blind Sheikh passed away after many years of incarceration. Linked to terrorism in the first World Trade Center bombing, the Sadat assassination, and the plundering of Copts, he was the beloved spiritual guide of the Islamic Group.
Egypt received his body and permitted a gathering at his funeral.
Far away in Sinai, two Copts were murdered by the Islamic State. A father shot, his son burned alive. A video was issued calling for many more.
Egypt continues its assault against them.
Many years ago she subdued the Blind Sheikh’s disciples; God, as the idea morphs further grant success again.
But the cost is so high. Win their hearts and dry their ground.
Perhaps the funeral helped?
Some chafed, God, that people would celebrate one deemed a criminal. Others nodded at respect for the dead.
Egypt offered dignity to his family, God. Preserve her dignity in turn.
But strengthen her also in the dignity of her citizens, especially the threatened, neglected, and disadvantaged among them.
God, may this new era be short. May the old era be remembered. Long forgotten let be the idea.
The demonstrations and violence surrounding the anti-Muhammad film Innocence of Muslims reveals two worlds which could not be further apart.
The West cherishes freedom of expression and allows religious ideas to be subject to debate, denial, and even ridicule.
Meanwhile, efforts to enshrine blasphemy provisions in Egypt’s new constitution are well underway, surely to receive a boost from this most recent outcry.
Those most offended took to the streets and unleashed the vilest invectives against those who insulted their prophet. Lapido filmed people at the US embassy in Cairo who were noisy, though not riotous.
Of the involvement of a supposed Israeli-American Sam Bacile (now known to be an alias for an American Copt Nakhoula Bacile Nakhoula) the crowd shouted, ‘Khyber, Khyber, oh you Jews! The army of Muhammad will return!’ Khyber refers to Muhammad’s victorious 629 AD siege of a Jewish oasis in the Arabian Peninsula, where he imposed the jizia tax for the first time.
Of the involvement of Coptic-American Maurice Sadek in the movie’s promotion, the crowd shouted, ‘Copts of the diaspora are pigs!’ A sign held aloft declared, ‘We are all bin Laden, you [Coptic] dogs of the diaspora.’
And besides the ubiquitous ‘Allahu Akbar!’ protestors chanted, ‘With our lives and our blood we will redeem you, oh Islam!’
Lapido Media spoke with two Islamists about the recent protests, in a bid to understand.
Mohamed Omar Abdel Rahman of the Islamic Group received Lapido the evening of the first day’s protest, when the flag of the US embassy was removed and burned.
His family has maintained a sit-in protest on the opposite side of the embassy for over a year, demanding the release of their father, Omar Abdel Rahman. Better known as the Blind Sheikh, he is in prison in America over his role in the 1993 World Trade Centre bombings.
Abdel Rahman is not a religious scholar, but a veteran jihadist from the wars in Afghanistan.
‘For any offence against Islam,’ he said, ‘the Muslim has the right to defend himself against the one who says it, and shouting “our lives and our blood” displays his love of his religion.
‘It does not mean to kill an embassy employee, but if the filmmaker comes to Egypt, he will be torn limb from limb. This is permitted in Islam.’
Concerning the signs praising bin Laden and calling foreign Copts ‘dogs’ and ‘pigs’, Abdel Rahman stated this was not meant literally, but ‘to scare them’.
‘They want to destroy Egypt and are its enemies, so this frightening is permitted in Islam.’
Asked about condemning all foreign Copts without distinction, Abdel Rahman stated this was a misunderstanding of Arabic rhetoric, where the general was meant to convey the particular, and exaggerate the grievance.
The use of insults was also misunderstood by the West, conveying not literal figuring but contempt.
‘This also is allowed in Islam,’ he stated, when invited to compare such contempt with the Qur’anic verse extolling ‘good preaching’ against a non-Muslim challenger.
‘Everything has its time and place,’ said Abdel Rahman. ‘It makes no sense to issue simple good preaching during jihad. If someone is attacking you, you resist and fight back, you do not just say a good word.’
Lapido then asked Abdel Rahman al-Barr, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau specializing in the shariah, to comment in a written interview.
By this time the American ambassador to Libya had been murdered, the embassy and school attacked in Tunisia, with outbreaks of violence in many other parts of the Muslim world.
‘Religion is one of the sanctities that man will protect and defend with all he has, even if this leads to giving his life,’ he said.
‘In the case of this offensive film it is necessary to announce refusal, condemnation, and anger with the most powerful expressions.’
To explain what makes this a religious obligation, al-Barr drew from a well-known tradition of the prophet.
‘Islam requires the Muslim to reject error and seek to change it with his hand, if he is able. If he cannot he must reject it with his tongue, and demonstrations are one of the ways to do so.’
Al-Barr noted that many of the demonstrators were ‘common people’, and Egypt did not have a culture of demonstrating. He hinted that the slogans used might be questionable.
‘Islamic morality is moderate in both satisfaction and anger,’ he said. ‘Powerful expressions of anger must respect justice. The Qur’an says: “God does not like the public mention of evil except by one who has been wronged” (4:148).
‘So if a man is oppressed he may use forceful phrases to express this oppression, but without triviality or debasement.’
Al-Barr blamed the media for taking an obscure film and throwing it in the face of Muslims. He gave no credence to the idea that religious scholars had a share in the blame for the excesses which took place, but did suggest some regret.
‘It is natural the scholars could not stay silent in the face of this rejected crime. Personally, if it was in my power I would not have given this subject any importance because it is a vile work.’
Instead, ultimate blame lay elsewhere, indicating the vast difference in cultural perspectives.
He concluded: ‘We request the government which allowed this film to appear – that is, the United States of America – to prevent [its showing] and to hold those who made it accountable, as they have instigated hatred and incited animosity between peoples.’
This article was first published on Lapido Media on September 19, 2012
At an open fast-breaking meal outside the sit-in protest for Omar Abdel Rahman at the US Embassy, Hassan Khalifa shed tears of joy as he concluded his ten minute speech.
‘I apologize for going long, but forgive me, it has been nineteen years that I have been in prison,’ he said.
On June 21 President Mohamed Morsy issued a pardon for 572 prisoners convicted in military trials. Of these, 25 were members of al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya or Islamic Jihad, groups still designated as ‘terrorist’ by the United States. Hassan Khalifa, now in a wheelchair, had been sentenced to death.
‘I praise God; I have never stopped speaking on behalf of al-Jama’a my entire life,’ he said, before switching to intercede for the Blind Sheikh.
‘Omar Abdel Rahman’s only crime was that he was the greatest one in worshipping God. He never ascribed to Islam anything that did not belong to it.’
Essam Derbala, who fifteen years ago led al-Jama’a in its Non-Violent Initiative to unilaterally give up terrorist techniques, presented Khalifa and others with a commemorative Qur’an.
Others honored included:
Ahmed Abdel Qadir
Abdel Hamid al-Aqrab
Sheikh Abu al-Ai’ila
Attia Abdel Sami’
Each of these warrants further investigation as to their crimes. I hope after further investigation to describe if these individuals were directly involved in terrorist activity and efforts to overthrow the government. Large numbers of al-Jama’a members and sympathizers were imprisoned upon association with the group, or even to pressure family members more deeply involved.
‘The United States has to stand with the people of the revolution and its demands, which include the release of Omar Abdel Rahman,’ said Essam Derbala. ‘Al-Jama’a will continue to exert all effort to obtain his freedom.’
Abdullah Omar Abdel Rahman, the Blind Sheikh’s son, added, ‘We congratulate the members of al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya who were released from prison. May God reward you for what you have endured.’
Abdel Rahman also relayed the testimony he received from Ahmed Raghib, the deputy minister for Egyptian affairs abroad in the Foreign Minister. Raghib told him Omar Abdel Rahman’s file was complete, awaiting only the signature of the military council or President Morsy. Once authorized, he said the Blind Sheikh would be back in Egypt ‘within hours’.
Mohamed al-Saghir, an Azhar sheikh and member of al-Jama’a’s Building and Development Party, added, ‘We tell the US administration, if you want to turn a new page with the Egyptian people, let us see your good intentions and release Omar Abdel Rahman.’
‘He was in solitary confinement for 19 years, but did nothing except call people to God.’
Abdel Akhir Hammad is an Islamic legal scholar for al-Jama’a, and interceded for the Blind Sheikh as well.
‘They lie when they say he is responsible for the explosion of the World Trade Center in 1993; they are the first to know he is innocent.
‘We are not weaker than the government of Yemen which was able to secure the return of Mohamed al-Muayyid back to their country, from an American prison.
‘I call on Morsy to fulfill what he promised and pressure that oppressive nation which claims it defends human rights.’
Nageh Ibrahim is another long-term leader of al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya. Along with Derbala and others he shaped the group’s Non-Violent Initiative.
‘We never expected a president who was part of the Islamist movement, but that day has come,’ he said.
‘From the first days of our initiative we have been waiting patiently for some of these people to be released.
‘But their release will not make us forget Omar Abdel Rahman.’
Nasr Abdel Salam is president of al-Jama’a’s Building and Development Party. He focused his words for prayer on the Blind Sheikh’s behalf, especially in the month of Ramadan.
‘God works with us as we work with him,’ he said. ‘So we must aid the right and God will aid us.
‘Let us return to God and ask him to support Muslims everywhere and free Omar Abdel Rahman from prison.’
As God is sovereign in all affairs, may he honor justice, have mercy, and bless those dedicated honestly to their cause.
A few days ago I posted an update about Syria, adding a few reflections. A few days after that, I met a Syrian.
Amin Kazkaz is a lawyer from the city of Hama, one of the flashpoints of the uprising. He had been working in the United Arab Emirates but returned to participate in Syria’s revolution.
Participation for Kazkaz meant armed revolt. On the eve of Ramadan 2011, one year ago, he was arrested in his city – with weapons. This information was volunteered and there was no hesitation in his voice.
Hama, reminded Kazkaz, was not the lead city in the revolution. Residents remembered the crackdown by Syrian authorities in 1982 during an insurrection led by the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet when other cities such as Deraa began meeting resistance for their peaceful protest the people of Hama felt compelled to join in as well.
Kazkaz spent twenty-five days in jail before his wealthy grandfather was able to intercede. A landowner, he bribed prison officials with 1.5 million Syrian pounds ($23,000 US) to free his grandson and erase his name from the national database. The warden opened Kazkaz’s cell and told him he had six hours to leave the country or risk re-arrest.
Immediately, with only the clothes on his back and items confiscated by the prison, he hired a taxi to take him to Damascus. From there he hired another taxi to cross the border into Amman, Jordan. Once settled, he arranged for his family to send him his private belongings.
In Jordan Kazkaz sought medical treatment for injuries suffered during combat and imprisonment, but then returned to the United Arab Emirates where he maintained residency. By this time, however, the UAE was rejecting Syrians within its borders and his residency was denied.
On a formal level the UAE and several nations of the Gulf condemned the Syrian regime for its crackdown and broke off all relations. This included agreements allowing freedom of movement between its citizens. On an informal level, however, Kazkaz stated that a major pro-regime Syrian businessman was active in the UAE and worked behind the scenes to keep Syrian dissidents out as well.
Kazkaz was forced to return to Jordan, but finding it too expensive he transferred to Egypt. This was five months ago; Egypt continues its policy of easy entry for Arab nationals. No visa is required but his passport is stamped with three month validity.
Egyptian policemen, he notes, are very sympathetic to the Syrian cause. At times he, like other Syrians, is questioned now that his residency has expired. Police look at the passport, note the nationality, hear the story, wish him well, and send him on his way.
For the last two months in Egypt Kazkaz has assumed responsibility to oversee the ‘Syrian tent’. The tent was erected at the Qasr al-Nile entrance to Tahrir Square during the ongoing revolutionary activity following the resignation of Mubarak. It serves as a point of awareness and support for cross-pollination in the Arab Spring. Syrians in Egypt visit regularly.
So do Egyptians; though I wondered for what purpose. A day or two earlier Syrian television announced the death of two Egyptians in a suburb of Damascus, where fighting had been intense. What were they doing there?
That evening the family of the Blind Sheikh was hosting a press conference at their open sit-in outside the US Embassy. My article on this event is here. In previous visits to his family I witnessed their fierce prayers against the Assad regime of Syria. Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya – the Blind Sheikh’s organization – has forsworn violence as a tool of Egyptian political change. Yet I wondered if they would encourage, or at least be aware of, Egyptians to go to Syria to join the jihad.
‘Of course there are’, said Mohamed Omar Abdel Rahman, the Blind Sheikh’s son. ‘But al-Gama’a has nothing to do with them, though it supports the Syrian cause morally. They are individual Muslims – Islamists – only.’
As the sit-in location is only five minutes from the Syrian tent I paid them a short visit first, meeting Kazkaz and hearing his story above. Upon mentioning the names of the two Egyptians, which he didn’t know, his response was quick.
‘I have met 200-300 Egyptians at this tent who have inquired how to join our fight in Syria,’ he said. ‘But we do not allow any foreign fighters in our revolution.’
Kazkaz explained the Syrian revolution was a Syrian cause, but furthermore, involving foreigners would be counterproductive. Not only would it damage their legitimacy but also foreigners do not know the lay of the land. They would be killed in their ignorance and perhaps take Syrians with them.
The only foreigners he has seen are five Iranian snipers he helped capture in Hama.
Yet Kazkaz’s final words, though not at all contradictory, suggest there may be ways for foreign fighters to infiltrate. There are for foreign media.
He offered me personal escort across the border to take a first-hand look at the fighting and to meet the leaders of the Free Syrian Army. All I would have to do is get a visa to Turkey, and he would coordinate everything. He plans to return to Syria within a few weeks.
The time with Kazkaz was insufficient to ask him the following questions:
How did you obtain your weapon? How long was peaceful protest underway before you started to use it?
To what degree is sectarianism a part of the Syrian revolution? What do you think should become of the Alawite community?
To what degree are Christians participating actively on either side?
What role do you wish for Islam in a free Syria if you are successful?
Are foreign powers equipping you with weapons and support?
Do you desire intervention from NATO or an Arab transnational force?
What did you do with the Iranians you captured?
As I have mentioned before, it is too difficult to understand Syria through the media alone. Kazkaz’s experience is partisan and that of only one man, but it is first-hand. As such, it is the first I have received.
On Thursday, July 26, the family of Omar Abdel Rahman ratcheted up their rhetoric in their awareness campaign to free their father. The family issued five demands to President Morsy and invited speakers to comment, some of whom threatened America harshly.
Otherwise known as the ‘Blind Sheikh’, Abdel Rahman is imprisoned in America for involvement in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. His family claims Abdel Rahman’s arrest was political, as the US yielded to Egyptian demands to silence him from criticizing Mubarak. The family has conducted an open-ended sit-in protest outside the American Embassy in Cairo since August of last year.
Abdullah Omar Abdel Rahman, one of the Blind Sheikh’s sons, called for a press conference and invited political leaders to speak on his father’s behalf. He desired to put pressure on President Morsy to intercede in the case, to fulfill his promise made during his inaugural address from Tahrir Square. Morsy identified Abdel Rahman as a ‘political prisoner’ and vowed to work for his release, along with hundreds of other prisoners in Egyptian jails, who were jailed for their revolutionary activity.
Morsy pardoned or otherwise freed over 500 Egyptian prisoners on the eve of Ramadan. He has backtracked, however, on promises to secure Abdel Rahman’s release.
Abdullah issued five primary demands:
For President Morsy to form an urgent committee to visit Abdel Rahman in his American prison and check on his health and the state of his confinement
For President Morsy to immediately authorize legal advisors to challenge the Justice Department’s use of an antiquated law to keep Abdel Rahman in solitary confinement for 19 years
For President Morsy to give the green light to the Foreign Ministry to begin diplomatic efforts to return Abdel Rahman to his country
To apply the principle of reciprocity on every American prisoner in Egypt and subject them to solitary confinement as is done to Egyptian prisoners in the US
For the presidency to allow some of Abdel Rahman’s family members continual visitation rights in America until he returns to his country
Political leaders in attendance were mostly from al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, Abdel Rahman’s original group which is designated a terrorist organization in the United States. In the 1990s al-Gama’a formally forswore violent methods. Following the Egyptian revolution it has created a political party, called Building and Development, which cooperated with Salafi parties during the recent parliamentary elections.
Abbud al-Zumor was the keynote speaker. A leader in al-Gama’a, he is unapologetic for his role in assassinating President Sadat in 1979.
‘Abdel Rahman was among the strongest to call against Mubarak and it resulted in his being exiled from Egypt,’ he said. ‘Eventually he went to America where he found no human rights, let alone the rights of a domesticated animal.
‘The matter is now in Morsy’s hands and he must move quickly to return Abdel Rahman safely to his family, as he is very sick.’
Mohamed Shawki al-Islamboly is also a leader in al-Gama’a, whose brother was the actual assassin of Sadat. He recently returned to Egypt after spending many years abroad in Iran as a political refugee.
‘Abdel Rahman exposed the Egyptian regime so it pressed the US to arrest him in violation of its proclaimed human rights,’ he said. ‘This is a shame upon America.
‘We say to Morsy it is your responsibility to seek the freedom of every Egyptian who opposed Mubarak, whether inside or outside Egypt.’
The most incendiary comments, however, were issued by Nasr Abdel Salam, president of al-Gama’a’s Building and Development Party.
‘Americans spend millions of dollars every year to improve their image in the Muslim world, but it has only gotten worse,’ he said.
‘If anything happens to Abdel Rahman, America and its people will pay the price. The criminals in the administration and the embassies will pay the price.
‘Abdel Rahman’s dignity is the dignity of every Egyptian.’
The final al-Gama’a speaker was Ezzat al-Salamony. He spoke of the need to ‘lay siege’ to the American Embassy, but Abdullah, the Blind Sheikh’s son, clarified these remarks afterwards.
Next Thursday, Abdullah said, there will be an open Ramadan fast-breaking meeting at the sit-in at the US Embassy. At that time he said they would announce the date for a massive demonstration at the complex, but there were no intentions to permanently close the embassy.
Salamony, meanwhile, clarified Abdel Salam’s remarks about ‘paying the price’. Speaking with him afterwards, he stated there were all sorts of means to pressure the American administration. Specifically he mentioned an economic boycott and sending fighters to Afghanistan to oppose the US military there. The objective would be to do to the US what was done to Russia, resulting in America’s loss of dignity in the world. This is the ‘price’ the American people would pay.
Salamony emphasized nothing would be done to American civilians, as this was against sharia law.
Other speakers outside al-Gama’a included Hanny Hanna, a Copt known as the ‘preacher of the revolution’ for leading Christian prayers from Tahrir Square.
‘The only way for Abdel Rahman to return to his children and grandchildren is to establish Egypt as a national regime,’ he said. ‘We must strive to return all Egyptians from foreign prisons as a humanistic demand.
‘As I love the Messiah I must also love the prisoner.
‘President Morsy has not dealt with his situation in wisdom. When he mentioned it at Tahrir he made the US think it was at the top of his agenda, and he made them aware of the importance of this issue. If he had been quiet and waited two years and asked then it would have been much simpler to secure his release quietly.’
Kamal al-Helbawi is a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood who resigned when the group nominated a candidate for president, believing they had betrayed the revolution.
‘We as Muslims must defend the right in every place, whether it is for a Muslim or a non-Muslim,’ he said. ‘I helped defend Nelson Mandela in South Africa, so how can I not defend our sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman?
‘We must mobilize Muslims and non-Muslims, Islamists and seculars, so as to make Abdel Rahman a national cause.
‘America is not a democratic nation; it is a nation of criminals. What they are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan was not even done by the Mongols or the Tartars. But we do not fear America, we fear God.’
Finally, Yahya Ismail is a religious scholar from the Azhar university.
‘We must support Abdel Rahman from every mosque, every institution, every political party, and even the Azhar itself,’ he said. ‘We must put his picture everywhere and host seminars and raise awareness. What have we done for him so far? He is being persecuted by the Zionists and Crusaders.
‘God has permitted war in the case of aggressing against religious scholars. A nation’s peace rests in the peace of its religion, and the peace of its religion rests in the peace of its religious scholars.’
Chants issued during the press conference included:
Oh al-Gama’a, oh al-Gama’a, we want a million-man demonstration!
Oh America, collect your dogs, we are tired of your terrorism!
But the microphone for the chant leader malfunctioned shortly afterwards and chants were abandoned.
Following the conference I spoke with Safwat Kamal, an unaffiliated Islamist from the neighborhood of Imbaba, Cairo. With Abdullah Omar Abdel Rahman standing beside, he spoke of the need to escalate the cause.
‘It has been a year now, and the people are getting angry,’ he said. ‘I have told Abdullah many times already, we must storm the embassy or kidnap a few Americans. But every time he says no.’
Amid the celebrations, and worry, over Egypt’s new president, there has been a small crisis over where President-elect Morsy will swear his oath of office.
The military’s supplemental constitutional declaration says that in lieu of parliament, he must swear in at the Supreme Constitutional Court.
Many Islamists, however, fail to recognize this declaration and the dissolution of parliament, and insist he swear his oath in front of the chosen delegates of the people.
Revolutionaries, on the other hand, demand he swear his oath in front of them at Tahrir Square.
Mosry has chosen the balancing act, honoring two of three.
Seemingly submitting to the military dictate, Morsy is due to take his oath of office tomorrow. Many interpret this as a tacit acknowledgement of recent military decisions, or worse, indicative of a ‘deal’ or power-sharing arrangement.
Others say Morsy is simply playing along by the rules of the military in order to obtain the presidential office, at which point he will slowly, but surely, work to reverse their accumulated power. Under this scenario, he is currently cementing his revolutionary and centrist credentials so as to keep a popular mandate to resist, and then press against, the military.
Along this path, today Morsy pledged his allegiance to the Egyptian people at Tahrir.
During his 45 minute speech, he gave a little bit to everyone.
To the establishment he said he comes with a message of peace and Egypt will not attack anyone. Israel was not mentioned specifically but the intention was clear enough.
To the centrists he mentioned he would be the president of all Egyptians. He placed Muslim next to Christian, specified tourism workers, and included those who opposed him, and still do.
To liberals he pledged Egypt would be a civil, national, constitutional, and modern state.
But for the revolutionaries he saved his theatrics, worthy of Mario Balotelli’s pose. In the middle of his speech, Morsy left the podium and addressed the crowd directly. He then opened his jacket to reveal a plain blue shirt, and more importantly, no bulletproof vest. He trusted in God, and in the Egyptian people.
Morsy led chants honoring the ‘free revolutionaries who will continue the path’. He vowed not to accept any limitation on the powers of the president, implied in the supplementary constitutional declaration.
More poignantly, he pledged retribution for the martyrs and injured of the revolution. He did not specify, but most revolutionaries finger the military.
And when he finished his address, the official chanter boomed, ‘Field Marshal [Tantawi], tell the truth. Is Morsy your president or not?’ It was a direct challenge.
The only group left out of the above was the Islamists. There were no calls for sharia.
But he did tack them on at the end, almost as an afterthought. After referencing the large banner near the stage, he took up the cause of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman. Known as the Blind Sheikh, he sits in an American prison for conspiring in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. From here he promised to work for the release of all prisoners incarcerated during the revolution, and included the Blind Sheikh in their number.
And finally, he called the people to unite in their love for Egypt. Yet to this he added such unity and love would ‘promote the cause of the umma’. Umma is an Arabic term generally taken to denote the Muslim nation as a whole. He did not elaborate, but perhaps hinted at, or subconsciously expressed, the greater aims of the Muslim Brotherhood project.
Reviewing Twitter later in the day, it was clear many Egyptians, even those opposed to the Brotherhood, were impressed. Perhaps not being raised in the arts of Arabic rhetoric I could not appreciate it, but I found the speech a bit rambling and repetitive. At the same time, however, it was a stark departure from the autocrat norm. Morsy was comfortable, engaged, and theatric. He reveled in his moment.
As for the content, a politician is often judged successful by how many constituencies he can please. In this case, he hit the mark. Morsy had to shy away from his base, but even the Omar Abdel Rahman reference can possibly be understood as one of justice, as I have written here, here, and here. At the least, a nation should be expected to lobby on behalf of its citizens jailed abroad, even its guilty ones. Still, the reference will give fodder for analysts to focus on Morsy’s extremist agenda, as well it possibly might suggest.
More likely it was a bone thrown to the Salafis and al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya, but who knows?
Another bone might concern the wrangling over the powers of the president. It is a key revolutionary demand, and of the Brotherhood as well. But largely it is nonsensical. Without a constitution, the powers of the presidency are undefined, yet to be determined by the people. That Egypt has reached this point is the fault and possible manipulation of many; but here, it is a rallying cry more than an issue of substance. That is, unless the charge is true the Brotherhood wish to gain control of everything.
In the end the largest question remains unanswered: Is their conflict or cooperation between the military and the Brotherhood? At Tahrir, did Morsy throw down the gauntlet, or simply pose for dramatic effect? Or, somewhat in between, was he establishing a bargaining chip? It is hard to tell. One’s answer here depends on the reading given to the revolution as a whole, not just on today’s speech.
A speech, which was on the whole successful. Is it his high-water mark, or is the best yet to come? Stay tuned, as the revolution continues. (Or not, depending on your interpretation…)
Post-script: After Morsy’s speech, Tunisian Prime Minister Rashed Ghannouchi addressed the crowd.[Ed. note: Ghannouchi leads al-Nahda Party, but is not prime minister.]Among other remarks he praised the martyrs of both the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. To their number he added Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, who was assassinated, allegedly on orders of the government.
He then added Sayyid Qutb, who was hung following trial Nasser. While perhaps a victim of military rule, Qutb represent a strand of strident Islamism that employed violence and questioned the faith of Muslims who differed from his vision. Ghannouchi’s mention thereof, like Morsy’s reference to the umma, may reveal more beneath his public agenda. Or not; perhaps he just knew his audience.
The Muslim Brotherhood set Egyptian politics ablaze recently with their decision to nominate their chief financier, Khairat al-Shater, for the presidency. Though he has since been disqualified, they continue to run with their backup candidate, Mohamed Morsy. All political groups recognize the right of the group to do so but many have criticized them harshly, recalling their promise from early in the revolution.
The Brotherhood assured both revolutionary forces and Western observers they had no intentions for the presidency, anxious to calm fears of an Islamist takeover. They even expelled a prominent member, Abdel Munim Abul Futuh, who declared his candidacy early on.
MB Spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan explained to me this promise was necessitated by fear the West would extinguish the revolutionary movement. Now the reversal is necessary to protect the revolution from former regime members seeking the presidency.
Perhaps this political analysis is reasonable, but the Brotherhood are not simply politicians; they are also Muslims. An anxious West expects men of religion to keep their promises.
Pressed on this question, Ghozlan was quick to answer.
‘If you want religious justification, the Prophet said: “If someone swears by his right hand, saying, ‘By God I will do this or that…’, but then sees something better than it, he may atone for his right hand, and do that which is better.”
‘There is a difference between matters of principle and political decisions. Politics is firstly concerned with the general benefit.’
Yet as the Brotherhood defines this benefit in accordance with their own, they risk confirming fears the group cannot be trusted, which some in the West extend to Muslims in general.
I inquired of scholars of three different Islamic trends to test Ghozlan’s interpretation. All three confirm the message of the tradition, though they differ in application.
Mohamed Omar Abdel Rahman is a veteran jihadist who fought in Afghanistan. He is also the son of Omar Abdel Rahman, better known as the Blind Sheikh, currently serving a life sentence in the United States for plotting the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.
He contrasts two examples,
‘There is a difference between a pact and a promise. A pact is an agreement between two parties and cannot be changed without common agreement, as in the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel.
‘This tradition of Mohamed refers to a promise and applies only to one’s self. So this can be changed if something better emerges or if circumstances change, which the Brotherhood clearly believes has happened.’
Osama al-Qusi is a Salafi scholar, trained under Wahhabi thought in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is controversial in Egypt, however, for his oft-criticized liberal interpretations.
He believes Ghozlan is misusing Mohamed’s words.
‘There is a big difference in what I say between me and God, which is the meaning of this tradition, and what I say to other people.
‘This is a religious mistake, no matter how politically justifiable it might be.’
Abdel Muti al-Bayyoumi is a member of the Islamic Research Academy and a traditional Azhar scholar. He and his institution represent mainstream Muslim thought throughout the Sunni world.
Like Abdel Rahman, he clarifies as to the nature of the Brotherhood’s commitment. ‘This tradition does not apply because they did not swear to God but only made a promise.
‘In terms of a promise the right to change it depends on their intention; if it was good it is acceptable.
‘The matter is between them and God, but they have to offer their justification, which if good should be accepted.’
Yet Bayyoumi, like many in Egypt, find neither their intention nor their justification acceptable.
‘It appears to me they want to consolidate power. They are aiming for the presidency, the parliament, the constitution, and who knows what else.’
While a man’s word should be his bond, most admit honest circumstances can free one from a pledge. For many in the West, though, religion in politics risks staining the former and manipulating the latter.
The Muslim Brotherhood, however, believes Islam and politics to be compatible, even inseparable.
How they navigate the quagmire will affect not only their own political fortunes, but also the greater Western perception of Islam.
Seeking to keep the case of their father in front of the public eye, the family of the Blind Sheikh, Omar Abdel Rahman, organized another conference at the site of their open sit-in across from the American Embassy.
The conference was conducted by the World Forum for Moderate Islam, under the title ‘Omar Abdel Rahman: Between the Crimes of America and the Neglect of Egypt’. The highlighted speaker was to be Mohamed Shawki al-Islamboly, the older brother of the man who assassinated President Sadat. The 75 year old Islamboly, however, apologized as he was ill and unable to attend. Islamboly had recently been released from prison on health grounds, after being deported to Egypt by Iran.
Abdullah Omar Abdel Rahman, the Blind Sheikh’s son, moderated the conference. He opened by mentioning the brief clashes between pro- and anti-military council demonstrators outside the US Embassy, and gave praise to God these did not escalate further. He further announced the organization of a march from the sit-in to the nearby parliament at 9am the next day, to present a request to the parliament for intercession with the government to demand Abdel Rahman’s return to Egypt.
The next speaker was Khalid al-Sharif, the secretary-general of the World Forum for Moderate Islam. He stated that if it is the right of the United States to defend its citizens abroad (in the case of the returning NGO workers), then why is Egypt not defending its Azhar scholar and others of its citizens in the United States.
Furthermore, he stated, Omar Abdel Rahman is diabetic and cancer-stricken; it is only humane to return him to Egypt. Yet more than being an act of mercy, this request is both legitimate and legal, unlike the actions of the US government to interfere in Egypt’s judiciary and fly the NGO workers out even before their travel ban was officially lifted.
The next speaker was Osama Rushdi, head of the Front to Rescue Egypt. He argued that Omar Abdel Rahman was an innocent man framed by the US and Egyptian governments to silence his criticism of Mubarak. It is a political issue, he stated, reflecting the longstanding relationship between the two nations, in which Egypt is America’s greatest agent in the region.
Rushdi spent most of his presentation detailing how the United States has conspired previously with the intelligence apparatuses of other nations, showing similarity to the case of the Blind Sheikh. He focused on Talaat Fuad Abu Qasim, who was apprehended in Croatia and returned to Egypt where he was executed.
Rushdi criticized the United States for not yet realizing the extent to which Egypt and the region as a whole is changing. History, he declared, will not forget these crimes.
He also interceded in the case of Abdel Rahman’s lawyer, Lynne Stewart, who is in prison for facilitating communication between the Blind Sheikh and al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya. Rushdi praised her as an American and as a Christian, arguing this was the ‘alleged’ reason, but that in fact she was being punished for her defense of her client’s human rights.
On this fact Rushdi is incorrect. Whatever bias may have been suffered by Stewart for her role, Mohamed Omar Abdel Rahman, another of the Blind Sheikh’s sons, admitted to me that she did break the law and transmitted messages.
The keynote speaker of the conference was Sheikh Taj al-Din al-Hilali, the controversial ‘Mufti of Australian Muslims’. He was given a warm welcome having returned to Egypt from such a long distance.
Hilali focused his comments on Islamic history, recalling a time when the sun did not set on the Muslim caliphate. He compared the neglect given by Egypt to Omar Abdel Rahman with the vigilance of Caliph Haroun. When fighting ‘the dogs of Rome’ – comparable now to ‘the dogs of America’ – he insisted on the return of a single Muslim woman captured during war.
Hilali also celebrated the period of Islamic dominance of the Mediterranean, which he called an Islamic sea. During the 1700s even the United States had to pay ‘jizia’ to the navy of Algeria, to secure the right of shipping in the region.
Hilali then quoted the Muslim Brotherhood creed – God is our end, the Apostle is our leader, the Quran is our constitution, jihad is our way, and death is the path of God is our highest hope. He stated the weakness of the Islamic world now is due to the fact that we have no leadership and we fight each other.
In Egypt, this represents the treachery of the military council. He compared the situation to that of the Arabian Nights: Ali Baba has fled, but his 40 thieves remain.
Hilali praised the revolution, but promised a greater revolution to come. This would include going to Palestine and breaking down the wall of shame, revolting against the current borders which divide the Islamic ummah, and finally in liberating Jerusalem.
Throughout the conference a official supporter led the audience in various chants. These included:
Oh Katatni, oh Erian, where is Omar Abdel Rahman? (these are leaders in the Muslim Brotherhood)
Oh Abu Ishaq, oh Hassan, where is Omar Abdel Rahman? (these are popular Salafi preachers)
Oh Tantawi, oh Anan, why submit to the Americans? (these are leaders of the military council)
Oh Abdel Rahman, we will not leave you, even if they shoot us we’ll bring you home
Why is Omar Abdel Rahman imprisoned why America and the military trample us?
The blood of Muslims is not an offering for the Jews or the Americans (reflecting a popular anti-Jewish urban legend that Jews mix human blood with their Passover bread)
They say our sheikh is a terrorist, but America has arranged this
Oh Interior Ministry listen well, the national security forces do not belong to us
They provoke us generation after generation, fall, fall Israel
Egyptian people wake from your sleep, we want to rule by Islam
However legitimate or illegitimate the cause of Omar Abdel Rahman, speakers and chants such as these will not gain much support among a Western audience. Of course, if the basic charge against America is true, then perhaps some of the above statements can be understood differently.
I should take care with a word like ‘friend’. It may well be this line of work promotes a false intimacy between the subject and the interviewer. My goal is to learn, to honor, and then to share. A friendship, however, is self-contained; others may be invited in, but there is never an inside-out. If the subject has a message to share, he is inclined to be friendly, that it be given justly. I know this. All the same, the power of this line of work lies in the crafting of relationships. They may be false; I aim for them to be true. I aim also to maintain objectivity, while seeking to incline my heart.
Ahmed Omar Abdel Rahman was killed in Afghanistan on October 14, 2011, by an American drone. One of thirteen sons of the ‘Blind Sheikh’, he and his brother Mohamed followed the encouragement of his father to travel to Afghanistan to fight against the Soviet occupation. Ultimately successful in league with a chorus of such mujahideen, both foreign and local, the Egyptian contingent discovered they could no longer go home. In absentia, Egypt convicted them of plotting to overthrow the Mubarak government, at least in association with groups like al-Jama’a al-Islamiya, of which the Blind Sheikh is the spiritual head.
Mohamed was captured by the Americans when the superpowers passed the baton, and was extradited to Egypt in 2003. He spent four years in a secret underground prison in Nasr City, Cairo, with all communication between him and his family halted. Afterwards he was transferred to a public prison in Tora to the south of Cairo, current home of former Mubarak regime figures deposed since the revolution. Mohamed, however, was never a fellow inmate, as his release was granted in August 2010. He reentered society and decided to continue his education, pursuing a degree in historical literature at Cairo University.
Mohamed joined in the events of the revolution, but thereafter dedicated himself to a further goal – gaining the release of his father, the Blind Sheikh, from an American prison. It is within these efforts I met him, as well as his brother Abdullah, at a sit-in protest outside the American Embassy in downtown Cairo.
Omar Abdel Rahman, the Blind Sheikh, was imprisoned in 1993 as part of the plot to blow up the World Trade Center. He is kept, at least some of the time, in solitary confinement, though he is able to communicate with his family in Egypt. He is now old, and perhaps dying. His family sits-in day and night on the pavement outside the embassy asking the United States to allow him to return home, and for Egypt to help plead his cause.
Mohamed and Abdullah not only ask his release on humanitarian grounds, but also because they maintain his innocence. Abdel Rahman freely criticized the government of Mubarak during his residency in America. Fearing America might facilitate a triumphant return home as France allegedly did with the Ayatollah Khomeini, the Mubarak regime sent agents to the United States to incriminate Abdel Rahman. His sons argue their father never advocated violence against civilians, and is wrongly charged. In exchange for doing away with this political menace, Mubarak promised to toe the American line on Israel and other issues of concern.
I have not yet investigated these claims, nor the original case. Neither am I fully aware of the activities of Mohamed and the now deceased Ahmed in Afghanistan. Mohamed tells me they stood on the sidelines during the internecine conflict that enveloped the nation after the Soviet pullout. He states as well they were never in league with Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, and that their father condemned the attacks of September 11. I will need to have further conversations on these matters, as well as do my homework.
Originally, I had planned on holding the content of these early conversations until I was more fully prepared. Then the newsflash: Their brother was dead.
I have been long troubled by the use of drones, which have increased significantly during the administration of President Obama. The issue surfaced in American political consciousness when al-Qaeda strategist Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen, was killed by a drone in Yemen. Meanwhile a Reuters report revealed the existence of a secret government council connected to the National Security Council, which places American citizens on a ‘kill list’ to be submitted to the president. Additionally, Turkish President Erdogan states the United States has agreed to give drones to his nation, and Saudi Arabia has asked for them. Currently, Israel flies drones over its border with Egypt.
Few Americans would lodge complaints against the nature of person killed so far in drone attacks. The profile is of the terrorist, al-Qaeda member, dedicated to killing innocent civilians. I will inquire if this was true of Ahmed.
Furthermore, there can be a logic to the use of drones. Scattered in caves in far away, unfriendly nations, such militants oversee operations that directly threaten American soil. Drones are cheaper in both expense and human lives. Our soldiers need not risk the operation necessary to apprehend the criminal.
Yet I argue this is exactly why the use of drones is dangerous. A virtue of democracy is that it is less likely to promote war, as the nation’s citizens must commit to bear the cost of its own sons’ lives. The use of drones breaks this link, placing the decision to kill squarely in the hands of the government. Yes, the government is still accountable, but it is a step removed from requiring a popular mandate. Elected representatives, we trust, are judicious in who they label an enemy, or at least in their appointment of military and intelligence officials bequeathed with this task, however extra-judicial it may be. Is there adequate monitoring? Is there transparency? If the public is largely separate from decision making, are their checks on who may be killed? Without a contingent of American troops also suffering casualties, who will care, or even know, that Ahmed is now dead?
To some degree at least, I do. Upon hearing the news I called Mohamed and Abdullah and offered my condolences. They were not grieved; they believe he died in the path of God and is now a martyr in paradise. All the same, I will render my social duty and pay them a visit soon.
The question is, will I be rendering a duty of friendship? Am I being played? Was Ahmed a terrorist? Was Mohamed? Is he still? I don’t yet know, but neither do I yet feel it.
All I have experienced so far are two men among many, with families and children, who have sat outside the American Embassy since August for the sake of their father. This is a noble act, whether or not they and their father are ignoble men. I hold the questions above as a check for my objectivity. I write with this in mind, but also with an inclined heart. I have not yet fully learned, so I cannot yet fully share. But I can honor, and I wish this plea against the use of drones to be a mark of what may become a friendship. It may be false; I aim for it to be true.